Thursday, July 20, 2017

Over the Fence (2016) Japan Cuts 2017

The centerpiece film  at this year's Japan Cuts, like the opening and closing films of the festival sold out over four weeks in advance of screening.  While could figure out why the other films sold out I wasn't quite sure why this one did until I saw it and I realized that the film was going to have admirers who were spreading the word as it being a must see.

Joe Odagiri plays a divorced man who has retreated to his hometown of Hakodate. Enrolled in a vocational school for carpentry he is trying to get his life back on track. He is severely damaged by his past. Along the way he meets a kind of free spirited, but equally damaged woman played by Yu Aoi. As the two circle each other Odagiri has to try and come to terms with his past.

A word of warning here- while the film is written up and made to look like a romance it really isn't. This is for better or worse a film about Odagiri's character. While there is a romantic thread, the real through line to the film is the path back from the edge and the beginning of the healing process. If you're going in expecting a romance you're going to be thrown off for a bit. (If you need proof it isn't a romance watch the last couple of shots of the film and you'll realize whose story this is)

A very real film in a lot of ways, OVER THE FENCE pushed a lot of buttons for me, I could identify with both people at the films center  to the extent that after a couple of exchanges I had to stop the screener I was watching and decompress. Several seeming innocuous lines rocked me and Odagiri's line about how he was the problem for his ex knocked me back- not because of the film but because I've said something similar. I was seeing so much of myself in some of the exchanges in the film that I was considering not reviewing it.

Cooler heads prevailed and I let a day or two pass before circling back to try to write up the film on it's own terms.

On its own terms OVER THE FENCE is a very good film. Nicely not by rote the film doesn't take the easy way out or shy away from pain. The first time that Odagiri and Yu spend the night together and he tells her abut the break up of his marriage is raw. You feel the emotion and the hesitation. Its as real a moment as you'll find in any film this year.

At the same time the meandering nature of the film, a mirror to Odigiri's  life, is a little too meandering. I never remained fully connected to the characters. I could click in for moments and sequences but not all the way through. There were times when I simply sat in my seat and let it drift by.

Reservations aside, I really do like OVER THE FENCE a great deal.  I love it's unique way of looking at the human condition but I don't think it achieves the true greatness of its best bits.  Assuming you are able to luck out and get a ticket for it's Japan Cuts sold out screening I highly recommend you do so.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Japan Cuts 2017 - Once Upon a Dream and Daguerrotype

Two film tonight at the Japan Society

This is restoration and retitling of a film called BEFORE THE DAY BREAKS. The sound and image have been upgraded.

The film is an experimental tale, similar in some ways to the ROBINSON films by Patrick Keiller or other experimental films where we look at long static shots and get voice over dialog and narration. Here the story is of a couple where the woman never can get enough sleep and he man works with sound.

Better than some similar films but not as good as others, ONCE UPON A DREAM is an interesting attempt at something different. I'm not sure if it succeeds.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's  first film outside of Japan is haunting film about love and loss and photography.

A youngman is hired by a photographer who shoots everything in antique style. He is also working on a project involving life size daugerrotypes of his daughter.

I really don't know what to say. This is a beautiful delicate film that the less you know the better it is. Most certainly a ghost story, the photographer is haunted by the ghost of his wife - but I dare not say more than that. The film gently, and not so gently flips over itself several times in the course of it's run time.

I really like the film a great deal and while I have a great deal to say this is too early in the films theatrical run to discuss it. (And I need room to ponder it's charms)

Highly recommended- though don't let anyone tell you too much about it..

Japan Cuts Capsules: Yamamoto, My Dad & Mr Ito, Shippu Rondo and Zigeunerweisen

Sakura lives with her mother in a town with a US Naval Base. She prefers to keep to herself and try to write rap lyrics. When the daughter of her mother's boyfriend comes to stay she is pushed to com out of her shell.

Good film which left zero impression on me. Far from a bad film it simply wasn't my cup of tea. While I didn't mind it while it screened I found I had nothing to say about the film on any level other than I saw it and it wasn't bad.

YAMATO play July 22

Aya is 34 and lives with he 54 year old boyfriend. When her 74 year old father is tossed out by her brother a clash of personalities occurs as dad runs rough shod over everyone. Sweet charming comedy is surprisingly meaty as the the film deals with the notion of what are we supposed to do with our older generations (not to mention the question of older/younger relationships). WHile I don't think the film produced big belly laughs it did laugh and smile a great deal. Its a small gem of a film that wonderfully turns things upside down-such a tear that isn't a tear but a raindrop.

Very recommended.

MY DAD plays July 23

Zigeunerweisen takes its name from a piece of music that is heard throughout the film. It concerns a college professor and his friend who wander across the country and have love triangle of sorts with geisha.

Self-produced and self-distributed film from Seijun Suzuki won the Japanese equivalent of the Oscar in 1980. It helped to get his career back on track. It Suzuki at his most unrestrained meaning the film is either going to delight you make you want to leave the theater. While I completely understand that some people can, and have , spoken for hours about the wonders of the film, it's never one that worked for me. Revisiting it for Japan Cuts I got half way in before I gave up. I realized I was reacting to it as I had been when I saw it years ago so I stepped away.

Recommend  for Suzuki fans as well as those who want to see what man consider his best work.


When a hunt for a new vaccine turns up an unbeatable bioweapon, it ends up stolen by one of the creators who demands a ransom. Sent to find it before something terrible happens, the other creator uses the hunt to spend some quality time with his son.

While this uneven mix of family comedy and espionage  doesn't always blend the genres correctly, it never fails to entertain. A bit broad at times the film never fully generates the full on suspense that some scenes require, however while we are not on the edge of our seats we are sitting riveted because we want to see how it all comes out.

A sweet little film recommended for anyone wanting to be entertained.

SHIPPU RONDO plays July 22

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In brief: Punk Fu Zombie(2017) Fantasia 2017

Wildly over long no budget film is set decades when in the future when Quebec has gained its independence and fights for its survival against ninjas, zombies and other factions. As the battle rages the son of the leader has to step up and take command.

The sort of no budget film with a knowing script that you either buy and go with the vibe or its one that you flee from in disgust.  I was fine for about 20 minutes until the realization came that the film was kind of operating on a single level and not getting any better. I could have gone along with it if there was something more to the script but it isn't very clever. It simply can't support an almost two hour running time with out imploding.

One of the major disappointments at Fantasia.

Sequence Break (2017) Fantasia 2017

Graham Skipper's SEQUENCE BREAK is a throwback to the low budget science fiction thrillers of the 1980's and early 1990's. Its such a good throwback that other than the odd moment or reference you might have a hard time placing when it was made.

Oz is told by his boss that he is going to have close his business. There simply isn't enough money in arcade games any more. Given the day off Oz goes to a bar and meets a lovely young girl. However a crazy man seems to be lurking in the  shop at night and weird game in the corner just maybe a portal to another dimension.

Practical effects and a moody synth score herald the arrival of a neat little film. A solid homage to films long gone SEQUENCE BREAK is the sort of film no one makes any more. This is the sort of film that would have played for "one week only" in a multiplex 3 decades ago when you didn't have to be a mega Hollywood blockbuster to attract an audience. Its a film that had it been made a couple of decades back would now be considered a cult classic and probably in line for a big budget remake. And all honesty the film is good enough that if things fall right in a  couple of years it just maybe that cult classic.

Beautifully put together to mirror those long ago films that are now in the hearts of so many of us , SEQUENCE BREAK also has some of the problems of those films as well with a a pace that is a tad too slow even though it only runs about 80 minute. Fortunately the pace creates mood rather than boredom and the result is a nifty little throw back thriller that is recommend when it plays Fantasia.

For tickets to today's or tomorrow screening go here.

Pulitzer at 100 opens Friday

Nate Hood reviewed Pulitzer at 100 when it played last year at DOC NYC. Here is a repost now that it opens Friday in theaters.

Kirk Simon’s The Pulitzer at 100 is barely one step above a puff piece for the illustrious American prize for arts and letters. In exploring its history and social ramifications, it never delves too deeply into the seedier side of things. There’s hardly a mention of how the awards stonewalled some of America’s greatest literary voices besides a perfunctory montage of talking heads grimacing, shaking their heads, and muttering oh what a shame. (Although at its conclusion there is one talking head who insists that the most astounding thing about the Awards are how often they get things right.) There’s no exploration of the various winners who received official calls of revocation and forfeiture. And the film completely ignores several prestigious categories like Best Editorial Cartooning, Best Criticism, and Best General Non-Fiction. Somebody watching the film without any knowledge of the Awards would probably assume that the only existing categories are Best Reporting, Best Novel, Best Poetry, and Best Photography

But for a film barely one step above a puff piece, The Pulitzer at 100 remains a compelling documentary. The elements they do explore are approached with a refreshing level of frankness and honesty. Yes, many writers see the Pulitzer as one of the greatest achievements they could dream of, but they recognize that it casts a grim shadow over the rest of their careers; how do you follow up winning one of the world’s highest honors? Many reporters express a similar unease over the prospect of winning. Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times and two-time winner (’90, ’06), mentions how weird it felt to win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. “The real winners were the students who protested,” Kristof mentions before continuing how “there is a certain irony in gaining from a surge of human misery.” The reporters from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans who won a Pulitzer for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina were unanimous in their declaration that they’d gladly trade their Prize to get their damaged city back.

Simon prevents his documentary from becoming a rote procession of talking heads with an interposed series of biographical vignettes about the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer, the pioneering newspaper magnate who established the Awards—as well as the Columbia School of Journalism—in part to help rehabilitate the reputation of American journalism after souring it with years of Yellow Journalism. Simon also liberally peppers the film with inserts of famous actors and writers dramatically reading passages from Award-winning works. Though pleasant enough—I particularly enjoyed John Lithgow’s rendition of Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening—I couldn’t help but feel them largely unnecessary for Simon’s stated purpose of examining the Awards and their legacy.


Malady (2015)

Hitting VOD platforms of every sort (Amazon, iTunes, Playstation, XBox) is the unshakable and one of a kind MALADY.

Holly's mother dies in the opening minutes of the film and her final words to her are "find love". Out in the world on her own for the first time she stumbles about until she falls into a relationship with lost soul Matthew.  As the pair grow closer and closer word comes that Matthew's mother is dying. Returning home to care for the woman the pair begin to spiral under her dark influence.

Shot in moody tones and uncomfortable close up MALADY is a dark visual delight. This is the sort of film that one could pretty much understand what the emotion of the film, if not the plot. The images are all and they are so compelling that I am left to wonder how much of the film's success is due to them since there is very little dialog. Words are not important here only actions.

Of course the film wouldn't work if it wasn't for the performances which are all real to the point of pain. Roxy Bugler's work as Holly is monumental. It is heartbreaking and horrifying. She gives one of those performances of the ages as a damaged soul looking for love. It is easily one of the five best performances of the year and a clear reminder how Oscar and the major acting awards completely avoid the small scale films. Bulger's work alone makes this a must see.

MALADY is a must see. If I don't discuss the film in great detail it's simply that the film is not something you discuss it is more something you feel.  In trying to write the film up I found that words can not truly do the film justice. I can not explain how I felt while watching the film any more than I can explain what being in love is like if its never happened to you. Until you experience it you can't know what it means.

Go see the film. Go experience MALADY's moody wonders and see what great filmmaking is all about.

Monday, July 17, 2017

KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ (2016) hits theaters Friday

I saw KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ back at the NYFF and had my socks knocked off. Here was a challenging film that grabbed the audience and forced you to deal with it.   It is not for all audiences but is highly recommended for anyone who doesn't just want a film to wash over them and instead wants to be engaged with it. 

Since the film hits theaters Friday here is a repost of my review

KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ is playing as part of the New York Film Festivals Explorations sidebar. It's supposed to be a grouping of a wide variety of films from across the globe but I'm of the opinion that it's a classification for films that fall some where between the mainstream and the Avant Garde. I say this because having seen KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ I can honestly say that I'm not sure where the film belongs as far as a classifying it.

Inspired by Bartok's only opera Bluebeard's Castle, KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ is a look at the lies of several women in Argentina. Told in long single takes with some inter cutting the film is a look at the life of young women who are well off enough to have some boredom or inertia creep into their lives. The sequences play out as slices of life.

The thing is I can't really get a handle on what exactly the film is. The first 17 minutes before the title appears with a burst of Bartok's opera, are a collection of images seemingly arranged almost at random. After the title appears sequences seem to develop something approaching a narrative arc. The first part of the film reminded me of the films that usually play in the Projections (formerly View from the Avant Garde) sidebar at the festival. However after that the film becomes just enough conventional as to not be Avant garde.

The best description of the film is the festival write up which says: is comprised of moments that seem to have been drawn from memory, with an elliptical continuity that moves according to forms, colors, sounds, and states of being. There is no protagonist in Kékszakállú, but several young women blanketed under layers of sunlit lassitude and politely tamped down discomfort. Nevertheless, this is a joyful experience, moving inexorably toward liberation.
I'm not entirely sure about that last line but the rest of it is pretty dead on.

I've seen the film twice now. I watched it once all the way through and then went back and watched a chunk of it the second time. To be completely honest I really don't know what I think. That may sound like a snide remark but it's not. In this case it's extremely high praise. Director Gastón Solnicki has made a film that challenges one's perceptions. KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ doesn't fit neatly into one's idea of what a film could or should do. It's not a conventional film, but at the same time it is not experimental either, it's a film that is a carefully crafted to provoke engagement with the viewer. You can not either accept the film or dismiss it without pondering it and considering everything about it.

In a weird way for completely unconventional reasons, the fact that the film forces engagement, KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ may very well be one of the best films at NYFF this year. Certainly the film is the first of the twenty something titles I've seen to this point that hasn't just laid there and simply washed over me. It's a film that has dared me to engage and consider and be more than passive. For that reason, as well as others, the film is recommended


Junko Emoto's first film is based on her semi autobiographical novel Kokan about writer Naoko who holds auditions for the first production of her new all-female theater company. She becomes smitten with by Haru one of the actresses. As jealousies with in the group collide with the drive to create the question is Naoko be able to stop her womanizing ways?

Experimental theater influenced feature film both eluded me and delighted me as a kind of stream of consciousness exploded across the screen. As characters come and things happen its more like watching moments of life happen rather than a solid narrative. To be honest I know the general plot, but I'm hazy on a lot of details.

To be honest after sending off a missive to a friend about the film (I was wondering what in the hell it was) I tried to run down some information on Emoto's stage work and what I could find suggested it's very much like the film with the added notion that it has a very strong fan base who loves it and how it is self referential. Because my access to information is extremely limited I can't say how true it is but based on the movie it seems right. The film seems like this was really meant for a set audience.

That said, EXTREMISTS' OPERA is definitely a living breathing work and as much as I could connect to it I think it is delightful. It is a film that is uniquely it's own thing. While the often fragmented nature of the film wore me down, the film more often than not resulted in me smiling at the screen. It is not perfect, nor is it for all audiences, some people won't be able to go with it. However if you can click with it and it's wild style I think you will come out of it feeling as though you've seen something special.

Have a Nice Day (2017) Fantasia 2017

Liu Jian's animated film noir is already in trouble with Chinese authorities. Pulled from festivals the film has people in power upset with it's less than flattering portrait of life in China.

Xiao Zhang steals a bag of money from a crime boss and is in turn chased but the boss's fixer. However things become complicated when an inventor or x-ray glasses and a couple looking for Shangri-la get involved.

Visually audacious film is a kick in the ass. A neon colored neo-noir film which isn't afraid to pause for some od ball asides it's the sort of film that one up Tarantino and dares him to try and top it.  A wonderful mix of low key Chinese crime mixed with an out there sensibility the film is a must see for anyone who wants something off the beaten trail.

The film is an absolute delight.

At the same time I'm going to be very curious how this film plays down the road since having seen the film and have been pondering it for several hours I'm left to wonder how this will play  once you've seen the flash since underneath it all it is striking me as a run of the mill crime drama.

On the other hand- that first time through this film is freaking awesome and the ride it gives is highly recommended.

HAVE A NICE DAY plays today and on the 19th at Fantasia. For tickets and more information go here.

Liberation Day (2017) Fantasia 2017

Someday the North Korean’s are going to realize that the rest of the world is putting them on with some of their cultural envoys and get pissed off- until then we’ll have gems like LIBERATION DAY to pass the time.

A weird ass kind of real world THIS IS SPINAL TAP, except the band isn’t a joke, LIBERATION DAY shows what happens when co-director Morten Traavik sets up a cultural mission to North Korea by bringing art rock band Laibach to perform. The idea is that the group’s faux neo-fascist attitude would be easy for the Koreans to digest. What results is a clash of cultures that is not what anyone expected.

Funny, moving, and surreal Liberation Day is one of those films I desperately want to see again because it’s straight faced look at what seems to be a joke results in all sorts of laughs and most unexpectedly trains of thought. Sure I knew I would get a chuckle or two out of the culture clash but I didn’t expect to have my brain spin off in six different directions. This isn’t a straight forward us vs them tale, it couldn’t be since director Traavik had previously worked with the North Koreans. He was obviously going after more than a straightforward “mock” doc.

Having seen the film a couple of weeks ago in preparation for this year’s Fantasia I find I am still haunted by it. Normally I write up a film as close to when I see it but this time I had to sit and ponder it. I had to think about what I really felt. I’m still not sure. That’s a good thing.

I do know that I will have to see the film a couple more times before I can really discuss it.

I first heard of the film not long before it when Nate Hood told me about it when we were sitting at a concert. There was this film I had to see…. And now having seen it I know why he felt that way. This is a wild film that doesn’t play by the rules while sticking very close to them. It’s a film that forces us to reevaluate what we are seeing.

Having seen the film I can now do for you what Nate did for me and tell you there is this film you need to see and it’s called Liberation day…

Liberation day plays again on the 19th of July at Fantasia

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Japan Cuts 2017 Opening Night or Yoshihiro Nakamura takes Manhattan

This is a the first part of a two part report on the Japan Cuts Opening Night which had Yoshihiro Nakamura presenting his latest film MUMON. This is going to be a report on the screening and the party which followed (a review of the film can be found here). I am not going to discuss my interview with Mr Nakamura and his lovely wife which happened earlier in the day. A full report on my interview will run in the next couple of days once the transcription is finished.

Japan Cuts 2017 began with something I wasn’t sure I would ever see the amazing Yoshihiro Nakamura making an appearance in the Big Apple. That may not sound like anything special but his films have been appearing as highlights at both Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festivals for the last decade and yet neither festival had managed to rest him away  from Japan and bring him here to get the love attention he deserves. When he appeared at Montreal a couple of years back there was a general murmur of "why isn't he coming to New York?" within the ranks of his New York fans.

The sold out screening at the Japan Society was a great deal of fun.

Before the screening I hung out on line talking to several friends who were waiting on line. Everyone on line was excited at the chance to see Nakamura in person. Several people were hoping, like Kristie who had flown in from Texas hoped to get there question answered- which in Kristie's case was vitally important to lovers of Nakamura's films- why can't we actually see his films outside of festivals in the US?

Because of the crush of people and because they wanted everything to go smoothly the Japan Society opened the doors almost an hour early. I stepped off the line because I was waiting for Joe Bendel to join me. Mostly waiting in the lobby, it was about 97 degrees with impossible humidity and a chance for monsoons I talked with the staff and other friends as they arrived.

When Joe arrived we headed in and took our seats near the back.

Programmer Aiko Masubuchi opened he evening by saying a few words

Mr. Nakamura introduced his film with a great deal of warmth and humor. He was utterly charming as he spoke about the humor and pathos In the period ninja film we were about to see.

(A review of the film can be found here)

After the film Nakamura did an extended Q&A. God bless the Japan Society for letting everyone get their question which was usually answered with great humor. He expressed his delight at being in New York and having his first T-bone steak.

The first question was indeed from Kristie who any regular attendee of Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival knows. As I said above she is a charming young lady who flies in from Texas every year for both festivals each year. The instant the call for questions  went up her hand went up

I had spoken to her before the screening and she was dead set on getting her question answered. Her question was of key importance to any fan of Nakamura’s work, which is the simple question of why can’t we get access to his films via DVD or streaming releases?

Nakamura sadly had no real answer to the question since he indicated that he didn’t know and that we would have to ask his producers.

From there the questions came fast and furious as he was asked to relate about the making of Mumon (he said it got so hot at times the salt from the actors stained their black ninja costumes),

mentioned his friendship with novelist Kôtarô Isaka (with whom he is planning to work again) and that reason that they work so well together is they share similar interests

as well as discussing how he chooses his projects- which is anything that moves him.

There were a number of questions concerning the star of MUMON Satoshi Ohno,who I was told several people who has gotten on line early thought might appear at the screening as a surprise guest (he didn't). Nakamura said that he was great to work with and that they are discussing other projects to work on together.

He added that Ohno was physically up to the role in every way. He said that for the final fight in the film Ohno had about 20 days to prepare for the fight because he was involved in so much of the rest of the film while his opponent had over four months to do so because that was his only action scene.

 The last question concerned whether he would consider making a film in New York. In referencing the almost 100 degree temperature and unbearable humidity he said no. Adding that if it was in the autumn he would consider it.

As I was heading out of the theater I was stopped by  Mrs.Nakamura, with whom I has spoken with during the earlier interview.  She asked if I had liked the film. I said I did very much and she then asked if I had spotted her cameo in the film (she and her children had played some of the fleeing families in the film) I had not. As I told her I was much too focused on the central story to look at the details.

As we walked to the party she asked me to talk to her husband about my thoughts on the film I said I would, but by the time we reached the party he was surrounded by fans and press.

As every one ate and talked the koto duo Tsugumi Yamamoto and Jun Ando played. They were so good that people were standing around their performance space recording them which made getting around difficult. (I have more photos but they are blurry from every jostling each other)

I went into the room with the food and drink with Joe Bendel for a look around. We got food, talked to friends and fans and after a bit we decided to head out so we could catch trains home. I paused to say good bye to Mrs Nakamura. I thanked her for taking the time to speak with me and to get a photo of her alone.

I want to thank the Japan Society for a wonderful evening and Mr Nakamura for a wonderful film.

SANTOALLA (2016) opens Wednesday

Martin and Margo left Amsterdam for Santoalla in Spanish Galicia. The idea was to have a better life for themselves. The town was largely empty except for the Rodriguez family. Things were fine for a while and then tensions started between the two families culminating in the disappearance of Martin.

Combining new footage, talking head interviews and camcorder footage shot by Martin directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer have created a moody look at clashing cultures. Its a leisurely paced tale with a mystery at it's center.

And for most of the films run time the film is quite engaging and I was willing to go along with it. However as the film shifts into the second half the film loses its footing. The film seems to be heading into an enigmatic conclusion when suddenly the. mystery of Martin's disappearance begins to be resolved and what was a nicely paced tale suddenly staggers as new information comes to light. It's as if the directors didn't want to go back and restructure the film. It weakens the film because the revelations are never integrated into the film and just feels tacked on.

Still this is a very good film and worth a look.

Game of Death (2107) Fantasia 2017

Jumanji for the gore set GAME OF DEATH has a bunch of obnoxious teens hanging out at on of their family homes. They discover a retro board game called Game of Death and decide to play. However once the game starts they are shocked that they now have to kill someone before the  timer runs out or else the game will kill someone and then reset an a new victim has to be found.

Starting as a web series from La Guerrilla (Montreal), Rockzeline (Paris) and Blackpills (Paris)GAME OF DEATH was edited together into a feature film. The result is a barely feature length nihilistic thrill ride that is going to thrill those who love great practical effects and annoy the piss of anyone looking for likeable characters or logic and reasoning.

As spectacular as the film is visually and viscerally the film is devoid of  anything but blood. You really can't like a film that really hates it's characters to the extent that it makes all of them either horrible or so annoying we want to kill them ourselves. I hated everyone and anyone I might have liked I really pitied. This is possibly the most vile cast of characters I've seen in a film in years (and that includes several docs about child molesters)

Worse the film has no logic to it since the game is supposed to be about the last man standing yet it requires that 3 times the number of players die. I won't even get into the most basic question of why would anyone have the game around if they knew what it was.

Clearly we are not suppose to not care about plot or characters only the violence. While I can almost say that's enough, the lack of characters make this film not something that I would ever want to see a second time.

For fans of practical visual effects and sociopaths only, GAME OF DEATH is not recommended for most audiences when it plays again on July 29 at Fantasia

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Gurgaon (2017) Fantasia 2017

This ugly family thriller will leave you feeling uneasy and disturbed with the level of vile human behavior on display.

Preet returns home from architectural school in America. The adopted daughter of a wealthy real estate family in India she was brought into the family because they had been told a daughter would bring luck. Because of her place in the family her older brother Nikki despises her. Its a feeling that deepens when their father wants to give Preet a choice piece of land for a condo project. After a sure thing bet goes horribly wrong Nikki decides to take steps to make everything right in his world, not realizing the nightmare will only get worse.

Gut punch of a film will leave your mouth hanging open as bad things pile up and veneers are stripped away leaving you with very few people you can like. It seems in this world everyone other than Preet and her mother are terrible people and we wonder how we can get out of this terrible place. Apparently the only way out is death. I twisted in my seat with each revelation.

This beautiful  to look at film has some stunning set pieces an small moments. There is this one moment in a club when a fight starts and continues on for a bit as no one notices because on some level the beating looks like dancing. Why hadn't I seen anything like that before? There are others joys, such as the denouncement which had me gasping, but I'll leave you to discover them.

GURGAON is a wonderful little poisoned confection that is recommended when it plays today at Fantasia

Fantasia 2017 Shorts LOVESCREAM and NATSUO

A woman wakes up and goes to the freezer...
Erotic and yet quietly disturbing dream  of a film is a beautifully animated film that is perfectly timed for maximum impact. A stunning example of animated storytelling at its finest.

Beautifully animated treat Natsuko is a two minute film, anime and comic infused about Red Riding Hood taking on some wolves. An absolute visual delight.

At The Terrace (2016) Japan Cuts 2017

At a fancy dinner party the hostess catches the young man she is interested in lusting after the wife of one of the other guests. Getting an admission out of him about her interest. In her jealosy she then sets in motion a series of alcohol fueled turns involving all her guests who who all wonder when will the party just end so they can go home.

Wickedly funny comedy of manners is the sort of thing that Neil Simon used to do on Broadway and in the movies with stunning regularity, though a little more gentler. This is really more what might have happened if you filtered one of Simon's plays through Luis Bunuel who more than once turned dinner parties upside down.

Tightly plotted twists surprise us at every turn as we watch the various characters get in and out of situations that had they not been drinking, or in a more clearly defined environment (this is an informal gathering and some class lines have blurred) they never would have done. I laughed and smiled even as I was wincing at some of the behavior.

A nice comedy of manners the film suffers one small flaw which is that the film is very much connected to the stage where it began. We never leave the terrace, a fact which wouldn't matter had the film moved around a bit more and not placed the camera so much to make the terrace look like a stage.

Still this is a delightful little gem and is very recommended.

In Brief WITH PRISONERS (2017) NYAFF 2017

Harrowing tale of a tough as nails gang leader thrown into juvenile detention after a bar fight. The beatings and humiliations he receive there push him to the very edge...

Solid prison drama goes wonky in the last third as the prison drama turns into social justice tract toward making the system change. The second part isn't bad but it is a bit too preachy to satisfy after such a dark first hour.

Still its very much worth a look.

Savage Dog (2017) Fantasia 2017

Scott Adkins is Martin Tillman in what may very well (oh please yes) become a series. This is a slam bang action film of the sort that Jean Claude Van Damme would have made 25 or 30 years ago and turned the box office into a mint as a result.

Adkins's Tillman is stuck in a prison in Indochina in 1959. It is after the French have left and before the Americans have taken over.  He is forced to fight in matches set up by the warden. He wins his freedom and takes a job working for the father of  young woman he has befriended. When he beats up a champion being brought into fight in the warden's underground tournament he is forced back into the ring to keep his new family save.

Wonderful B action film of the sort that made Chuck Norris and JCVD mega stars SAVAGE DOG is just good violent fun. Like in those earlier films the plot is kept to a minimum as is character development, and while that is often a disaster, here i works wonders since we are given enough to make ups like the good guys, hate the bad guys and follow along without any leaps in logic. Adkins and the other actors are allowed to create meaningful characters via force of personality and it works brilliantly.  Its all good clean fun where we can , boo and his and cheer in all the right spots.

 While most of the action sequence involve fist fights, things get more and more violent as things go on. We are never bored and things never drag. This is one of the most beautifully paced action films of the year.

Actually this is one of the best action films of the year. A glorious throwback piece of nostalgia that is so good you'll want more when it ends. WHen the film ended All I could think was to call everyone I know and get them to make plans to see it.

One of my favorite films at Fantasia.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mumon: The Land of Stealth (2017) Japan Cuts 2017 Opening Night

My take on MUMON is not the typical one, with the result this piece may confuse many of you. I'm sorry.  For while billed as a comedy I don’t see MUMON as one. I see it as a dark satire…though it’s probably more a grand tragedy where everyone ultimately loses, despite some people walking away. Once events are set in motion it becomes a game where there will be no winner and even if they are still standing at the end in the long term they will have lost.

The plot of the film is actually quite difficult to describe simply. Nominally the film is the story of a ninja named Mumon who is paid to kill the second son of one of the rival clans during a skirmish. This sets in motion a series of events that will play out when the land of the ninja is invaded by the samurai. I am going to forego trying to explain anything further because like a great work of literature there is a great deal going on with numerous characters and their subplots running through it. Trying to simply explain it is not really an option.

I really love this film. This is a film that has gotten better the more I've thought about it. Its a film that is so much deeper than the action comedy it seems to be it is operating on any number of levels.

While the film is billed as comedic with a touch of pathos (per director Nakamura) I found the humor not really funny, there is a bleak edge to what is happening that once you see it makes it hard to laugh. Make no mistake the film is largely a comedy, the gentlemen around me were roaring with laughter all through it. There is no way I can say that there are not numerous funny and bits and some wonderful action set pieces. I smiled and laughed, but more often the checkles caught uncomfortably in my throat. I largely just sat staring at the screen. I saw the humor of the actions but I also saw it as warning of the dangers of a world at constant war. It’s a world where life means nothing and where men kill just for the hell of it. No one cares because there is a very real sense we all could be dead tomorrow (largely because no one cares).  While the film is billed as a comedy with a touch of pathos (per director Nakamura) I found the humor not really funny, there is a bleak edge to what is happening that once you see it makes it hard to laugh.

Making it more damning is the fact that world events have caught up with its world view where all our leaders are corrupt (at least here in America). What the ninja lords are up, a grand grab for cash at the literal cost of their sons is horrible. While the film has been a long time in production the fact that the film arrives as Donald Trump and his cronies are setting about raiding our countries coffers, while edging us to further religious conflict and war with North Korea  makes the film a frightening and prophetic look at the state of the world’s politics. It is in no uncertain terms a film in par with the greatest anti-war satires such as DR STRANGELOVE or the under appreciated WRONG IS RIGHT.

While the main action of the film has to do with the move of a samurai lord to take the land of the ninja, who are considered beasts and are not to be dealt with by humans (they should be left to dwell in their swamp), the film is actually quietly posing a good number of very serious questions that made the film incredibly heartbreaking for me.

The film’s most obvious theme is the notion of doing anything for money. Everyone wants to money for one reason or another. The samurai want to maintain their control (they want the tea container because of its value). The ninja want money because it’s money. Even our hero, Mmon, works for cash. No one has any honor where money is concerned. Worse if you are doing anything not for money you’re doomed. This view of money being at the center of everything makes this one of the most cynical films I’ve ever seen. It’s a fact reinforced by the huge body count of the film.

The sheer lack of caring for anyone makes this a bleak film. Almost no one really cares for anyone. Anyone who does care is bound to have the person they love die. Loyal retainers are forced to kill their lords, brothers watch as siblings die and their deaths are joked about and lovers are doomed never to consummate their love, killed at the moment they realize that there is more to life than money.

If you do anything for any reason other than money, say a genuine love of country, that will blow up in your face. Late in the game the as half of the ninjas are fleeing the invasion Mumon has a change of heart and decides to fight for his home land. Luring everyone back with the promise of a huge payday he rallies the troops who win the day but because because this world shits on good intentions it results in only pain and sorrow.

Ultimately no matter what we do for any reason it will end badly. The only thing one can do is hunker down and blend in…and maybe make some money while not caring about anyone.

The intriguing thing about the film is that in light of the President Trump’s anti-immigrant notions concerning a wall and restricted access the film could be seen as a perfect excuse why we should exclude some groups (the ninjas are beasts who once they are allowed in bring down the samurai). It’s a sad commentary that makes perfect sense in context of the film.

While many applauded the films bittersweet nature of the film, my heart was simply broken by the underlying sadness of it all. If you look past the humor Nakamura has made a shattering portrait of the world today. It is a bitter pill that while wrapped in the sweetness of humor is in fact a clear eyed look at how far we have fallen. There is no honor, there is no goodness, there is only a striving to just survive. As with the many of the great films which hide dark warnings in over the top horror or humor MUMON screams out about the dangers of our world.

Not to put too fine a point on it MUMON is a masterpiece.

A must see.

Mumon opened the 2017 edition of Japan Cuts. It will play at this year's Fantasia in Montreal on July 30

A report on the opening night festivities will be coming as will an interview with director Yoshihiro Nakamura
Director Yoshihiro Nakamura at the Japan Cuts screening